Searing flash points erupt in supervisor race pitting appointed incumbent against challenger

Shellie Milne, left; Chuck Washington, right. Courtesy photo
Shellie Milne, left; Chuck Washington, right. Courtesy photo

A high-stakes race for an open Riverside County supervisor seat has suddenly gone from simmering to searing.

The waning days of the Nov. 8 race that pits appointed incumbent Chuck Washington against challenger Shellie Milne has been marked by each side releasing stacks of documents aimed at painting their opponents in a negative light.

The opposition research, released by campaign surrogates beginning Oct. 13, mark a toe-to-toe political brawl that may rank as the most vitriolic in the county’s fast-growing 3rd District.

One of Washington’s financial backers, Howard Rosenthal, touched off the exchange when he delivered a packet of materials to the Valley News that he claims indicate Milne “lacks the experience and stability” needed for such a crucial elected office.

“Unfortunately, this candidate is a financial wreck with a bad track record and was a nightmare for us in the city of Hemet on the council,” Rosenthal said in a subsequent email.

Rosenthal’s actions prompted Milne’s political consultant to respond in kind, releasing a trove of materials. In an email cover letter, Alex Avetoom characterized Washington as “a pay-to-play politician with countless conflicts of interests and favors done for donors with business before the government.”

Avetoom, director of the Irvine-based Venture Strategic, went on to say that Washington over the years has tapped into “lavish perks and gifts” that include Las Vegas trips, extra pay, free beer, hot air balloon rides and an admission to an array of ticketed events.

As the exchanges unfolded, both candidates agreed to answer email questions. Milne also did a telephone interview.

Milne said she had initially hoped that the race would solely be framed by county issues. She said it is regrettable that the race has veered off that path.

The race started with three political powerhouses vying in the June 7 primary. Rarely had three candidates with such hefty political pedigrees gone toe-to-toe in a local supervisorial contest.

Washington, who was appointed to his post by Gov. Jerry Brown in March 2015, captured 40 percent of the vote after all the election precincts were counted. That was well short of the majority that he needed to avoid a runoff.

Milne finished second by capturing nearly 32 percent of the vote. The other challenger, Randon Lane, finished third and did not make it into the runoff election. Lane was the youngest person on record to be appointed to Murrieta’s Planning Commission in 2003. He remained in that post until 2008. He has served on the Murrieta council since then.

The county’s third supervisorial district is home to more than 450,000 residents. It stretches from Temecula to San Jacinto and Idyllwild to Anza Borrego Desert State Park. It takes in four cities: Temecula, Murrieta, Hemet and San Jacinto; as well as such far-flung unincorporated communities as Murrieta Hot Springs, French Valley, Winchester, Aguanga, Lake Riverside and Anza.

The five county supervisors serve four-year terms and they each earn a base salary of nearly $148,000. They are elected as nonpartisan candidates.

For generations, the 3rd District was headed by political leaders from Hemet and other population hubs east of the Interstate 15 corridor. Then one growth boom after another roared through Temecula, Murrieta and French Valley. As the district’s population base shifted, so did its political power.

Milne’s campaign materials describe her as “the proven conservative” who seeks to protect private property rights, adopt responsible spending policies and privatize government services when such steps are practical.

In the email interview, Milne said her record proves that she will “stick up for the taxpayers” of Riverside County. She said change is desperately needed.

“I think we’ll do well to clean house,” she said in a brief telephone interview. “Nothing will change if we keep the same people in play.”

Washington’s materials say he has made a difference during his stint as a supervisor. The materials say he takes action and gets the job done.

His email spotlighted his experience, government track record and his efforts to create jobs and balance budgets.

Washington has carved out a unique political path since he arrived in Murrieta as a young military vet turned airline pilot. Washington served on Murrieta’s council from 1995 to 1999 and was mayor for part of that term.

Washington moved south into the Temecula community of Meadowview, and he was elected to that council in 2003. Washington was still on the council when Gov. Brown tapped him to fill an open seat on the county board.

Washington is the only person to be alternately elected to the Murrieta and Temecula city councils. He is also the first black to ever serve on either council. He broke that same racial barrier on the countywide board.

Lane and Milne surfaced as likely opponents to Washington almost as soon as the ink dried on Brown’s appointment.

Milne is a retail and municipal consultant and her family owns a grading and excavation company. She parlayed her tea party roots and community activism into a winning bid for a Hemet council seat in November 2012.

The campaign has been costly and split along factional and ideological lines. There has been a scramble for endorsements and donations. Recently, the race has detoured into deep background searches and character attacks.

Washington’s campaign materials indicate that he has amassed more than 200 endorsements, many of them from key leaders and groups. The materials state that Washington has the backing of three county supervisors, four Temecula councilmen, several business associations and public employee unions.

Financial disclosure forms show he has raised nearly $340,000 heading into the homestretch, including nearly $10,000 from three Indian gaming tribes. Much of his financial support has come from developers and public employee unions. At least three wineries have been the site of campaign fundraisers and his donor list includes several vintners.

Washington has loaned his campaign $4,000. A funding committee controlled by a former Temecula council colleague – Jeff Comerchero – has pumped about $15,000 into Washington’s campaign, according to the financial reports.

Records show that Rosenthal, who gave his opposition research to this paper, paid for food valued at $800 that was consumed at a Washington fundraiser. Howard and Margaret Rosenthal are listed as among the Hemet / San Jacinto community leaders who support Washington.

Washington said that fundraiser was held in December 2015 and it targeted Hemet-area business leaders. Rosenthal is also one of four local supporters who are quoted on Washington’s campaign website.

Washington said Rosenthal has become a friend in recent years. They do not socialize, but talk occasionally about local issues, Washington said in his email.

Milne’s campaign website lists a just handful of endorsements, but some of them are from key office holders or are leaders of political groups. They include U.S. Rep. Ken Calvert, state Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez and state Senator Mike Morrell.

Milne has also won the endorsement of Ron Bradley, who has attained a guru-like status among local city managers, councils and business leaders.

Bradley is perhaps best known in this area as Temecula’s city manager from 1994 to 1998 and as a chairman of its chamber of commerce. He previously managed the cities of La Mesa and Oceanside.

He served as an interim city manager in Laguna Hills, and held that same post in Murrieta in 2007 and Hemet for a period that spanned portions of 2012-13. Bradley is a candidate in the Temecula council race that culminates Nov. 8.

Milne has raised more than $305,000 over the bulk of the campaign. At least $60,000 has come from one or more entities associated with Wayne Minor, who is affiliated with a network of business and agricultural interests, records show.

Another $20,000 of Milne’s funds came from the Hemet-based Physicians for Healthy Hospitals. Two other groups – the Victor Valley Global Medical Center and the Western Electrical Contractors Association political action committee – each donated $10,000.

The release of background information by Rosenthal added a new wrinkle to the race. In many political races, behind-the-scenes supporters seek to share information anonymously with the news media. In this instance, the releases amount to full-throated public barrages by both sides.

The half-inch thick file that Rosenthal dropped off at the paper consists of a piecemeal and possibly selective smattering of court documents that could likely be combed from the public record.

The stack includes documents dating from about 1996 to 2004 that centers on Milne’s past divorce case. A four-page civil complaint filed against Milne by a Phoenix attorney in May 1996 is identified as a case of “Embezzlement, Conversion and Breach of Contract.” No information was given as to how that case – which centered on work that Milne did for a doll shop – was resolved.

The other Rosenthal materials include a December 2002 small claims case pertaining to a disputed firewood purchase, a December 2000 Superior Court case stemming from an El Cajon automobile accident, a March 2004 personal injury case and a May 2010 speeding ticket that, before its eventual disposition, included Milne’s failure to appear at a court hearing.

In response, Milne said the cases were inconsequential and in some instances, frivolous. Given Washington’s track record, she said the documents amount to an ill-advised effort to “rifle through” her past.

“In reality, everything I have seen from Chuck seeks to tell a polar opposite story than what is true,” she said in her email reply.

Her consultant, Avetoom, emailed a thinner stack of materials to the paper.

One set focuses on a string of changes in party affiliation before Washington’s appointment by Brown, a Democrat. That batch centers on a tracking that shows how Washington since 2001 shifted back and forth from being an independent to a decline to state status to Republican and, finally, to Democrat.

Avetoom also provided Washington campaign financial reports that he says is intended to mislead voters about Washington’s current party affiliation.

Washington called that “nonsense” and noted that his forms reveal support from Republican and Democratic backers.

Avetoom provided a 2005 Superior Court claim in which a woman who purchased a car from Washington lodged a fraud claim over the vehicle’s sports package and its mileage. An accompanying record showed that the two sides reached an agreement after Washington offered to pay the woman $350. Avetoom contended the materials showed Washington was “sued for fraud like a shady used car salesman.”

Washington countered that the dispute was casually settled and he asserted that Milne’s court cases were far more onerous.

Other Avetoom documents include listings extrapolated from public records that he said indicates many of Washington’s campaign donors can be traced to companies or individuals he has helped.

Some documents also list ticketed events, trips or for-fee activities that Washington has attended or participated in that date back to 2009. Other documents detail pay he has received since 2012 from public agencies that he has belonged to as part of his service on a council or the county board.

Those agencies include the Western Riverside Council of Governments, the county Local Agency Formation and the Riverside Transit Agency.

Avetoom concludes that those “pay and perks” received by Washington had a total value from $21,000 to $37,000.

Washington provided a point-by-point rejection of those contentions. He said the trips he took netted benefits to his constituents. He said he has paid for outings himself. He said many public and private events offer cities and agencies tickets in hopes of attracting key public officials to shows, venues or gatherings.

Washington said both he and Milne have drawn donations from political supporters. He was critical of Milne’s public service and said he is supported by people who like the work he has done and want him to continue in office.

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